Studies in Coping Strategies: Avoidance
There’s not really anything in this week’s reading or last’s that I want to write a whole post about (in much the same way that Dan’s concerned about harshing the collective buzz, I’m chary of being the bad Zombie), so instead I’m going to backfill and give David a proper response to his comment of a month ago. He says:
This is my second time through the book and I have to say that it never occurred to me to describe Bolano’s attitude toward his characters as contemptuous, although I suppose its fair to characterize the dispassionate, almost reportorial quality of the narrative voice as dehumanizing. While there is more than one narrative register in the novel, for the most part the reportorial voice dominates, and while it doesn’t completely rob the characters of their individuality, it does flatten them out more than a little bit. Also, while its not fair to say that there’s no character development in 2666, there is an almost heroic effort to deprive the characters of the sense of psychological depth and wholeness that is one of the primary pleasures of narrative fiction. So if failing to fully flesh out characters, or to show how their actions fit within some kind of cosmic order, however indifferent or malevolent, equals contempt, then I guess that’s a fair assessment. It just doesn’t feel like contempt to me. More like studied indifference, although maybe indifference is equivalent to contempt when someone is in physical or existential peril.
It’s funny, there’s a similar aloofness towards the genuinely contemptible characters in Nazi Literature in the Americas, but in that case the effect (to me at least) is to humanize them.
I guess I should preface my reply by revising my original remarks to say that they only seem to apply to the Parts About the Critics and Fate. I gave myself a pass there on the Part About Amalfitano (which doesn’t read like entirely good form, on revisiting), but I can’t honestly say that the Part About the Crimes has been contemptuous of anyone; in fact, it’s felt almost psychopathologically dispassionate. So, to crib from the Supreme Court, let me cabin my earlier opinion to parts 1 and 3.
Having said that, I still stand by that opinion. In the first place, Barry Seaman (as an example) is overtly ridiculous. For the narration to present that whole “sermon,” in all its extended nincompoopery, is to invite us to laugh at him. Yet he’s clearly sincere in his belief that this is useful, important advice. Clowns are funny (à chacun son goût, I know) because they willingly make fools of themselves; Seaman we snigger at behind our hands from the pews while he earnestly tries to help. Merolino Fernández (the boxer) doesn’t fare much better: how many pages of buildup? And he’s knocked out in less than a minute. These are characters who are introduced for us to mock.
That’s where I move into the second part of my argument. I’m concerned to find myself double-dipping at the well of authorial intention, but it’s relevant to what David says. I appreciate the distinction he’s making between what is done (the technique of the narration) and what it means (whether it’s contemptuous or not), between the thing and the interpretation of the thing, but I think in this case the one necessarily includes the other. He concedes that the narrating voice may be characterized as dehumanizing—which I think is fair—and to that I say: It was intentionally constructed that way. When “someone is in physical or existential peril,” indifference on the part of the actor who voluntarily put them in that peril must be contemptuous (at least). What bothers me most about the narration’s treatment of (most of) the characters in the first and third parts is that Bolaño has invented these characters in order to make fun of them and to make them suffer. That’s gratuitous and nasty; I’ve given up on authors for it before. (Ex.: Will Self.) It sounds somehow old-fashioned (and a little daffy) even to my own ears to hear myself complaining that the book is cruel to imaginary people who were imagined for the sake of being put through imaginary distress, but that’s basically what it amounts to. I find the introduction of characters for the purpose, among others, of inflicting ridicule and suffering upon them an unsavory practice, and it’s upsetting to read.
And to the objection that I don’t take the same kind of intransigent stance to the degradations that the characters of Infinite Jest undergo—and they are many—I have two related defenses. First, the characters in IJ generally retain their dignity at the hands of the narration, no matter how apparently awful things get. And second, 2666 just doesn’t earn the same slack from me. As Steve aptly put it, “There is not a lick a redemption here nor is there held out the hope of any.” To me, that makes the characters’ sufferings pointless in a way that they aren’t in Infinite Jest.